I waited until after dark to write this. And I'll confess, I required a few glasses of wine to loosen up, first. It’s not that I’m embarrassed to talk about porn. Not exactly. But somehow, even though I write regularly about sexual politics, the idea of writing about porn in the daytime seemed … kind of shameful. Or at the very least, uncomfortable. Even in my role as a dispassionate journalistic observer.
Because really, I’m not a dispassionate observer — not even in the literal sense. I’m a woman who has sex. Who enjoys sex. Of this fact I am very much unashamed. The notion that women ought to — and do — enjoy sex is as old as the second wave of feminism. Vibrators may have titillated Sex and the City fans in the late '90s, but by now they’ve moved out of the realm of bachelorette party gag gifts and into the bedrooms of 52 percent of women. And academics and public-health experts agree: Women who masturbate are happy and healthy and more sexually fulfilled. So why, then, do we still start stammering and blushing (even hours past deadline, when we’ve had half a bottle of cab) when the discussion turns to women watching porn?
Clearly, there’s a narrative about how women are supposed to pleasure themselves. It involves tasteful (or maybe even cheesy bodice-ripping) erotica. It involves a lively imagination. It involves vibrating silicone rabbit ears. It involves candlelight and bubble baths. But if you even allude to the fact that a woman's solo sexual pleasure might include watching two actors have sex with each other for money, the discussion gets awkward.
This is strange! It’s 2012. Many, many women watch porn. A full 66 percent of us, in fact. And most women certainly know other women who do. We talk about it with our friends. Maybe not loudly, and maybe not in public. We might not be able to pick out a porno for our girl friends the way we’d select a sweater off the rack. But, we have an idea or two about what they watch. We might not be into the same stuff, but we don’t think it’s shameful or gross. It’s a matter of preference. On a personal and interpersonal level, we get that.
There's a pretty big caveat here, though, so click through to keep reading.
Good or bad? Choose a side, this question demands. Either you think porn is an evil force oppressing women the world over, or it’s a source of empowerment for our entire gender. The debate leaves little daylight for individual women to ask themselves the most important question: What turns you on?
Of course, we can go deeper than that. (And harder!…Just kidding.) We can ask ourselves, why do I like what I like? What has shaped my ideas of sexuality? What effect do my sexual tastes and preferences have on the people I sleep with — and the people I don’t, including those who may be actors in the very material that’s turning me on? These are questions that have to be answered individually, personally. The problem is that the wide-ranging high-level debate about porn heads straight for the proverbial money shot. Is most porn good or bad for women?
In one corner, we have the "porn is bad" camp. They say it’s mainstreaming the idea of sexual violence against women. It’s making teenagers friskier. It is an exploitative industry that has a disproportionately harmful effect on women. It means your male sex partners can’t get hard.
In the other corner, we have the "porn is good" camp. Actually, they say, porn is only a small part of society's changing attitudes about sex. Teenagers would be having sex anyway. It’s not so bad for female performers. And the real problem is that we no longer teach comprehensive, useful sex ed in schools.
But we all know that nothing in this world exists in those kinds of black-and-white certainties. So, the sooner we start acknowledging that women aren’t just the subjects or victims of pornography but also the consumers of it, the sooner we can get to work on pressuring the industry to diversify. The rise of a handful of atypical porn stars, like Tumblr-blogger favorite James Deen, proves that there’s an appetite for actors who break the mold. The prevailing attitude in the industry right now is that women are not the majority of the audience. So, why would the industry create porn tailored to women’s tastes? To shift that attitude, we need to start the conversation from a different place: One that doesn’t argue whether porn is good or bad, but one that accepts it’s a part of many, many sex lives — and not just men’s sex lives — and asks how we can get to a place where people of all different tastes and sexual preferences have access to porn they find sexy that they don't have to feel ashamed about.
Photo: Courtesy of Tin House Books
Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza